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Team America: World Police

Paramount Pictures
98 minutes (R rating)
Commentary by Kevin Miller

I’ll admit it: At times during this film, I laughed out loud. These guys, who are infamous for creating South Park, definitely know what’s funny. Many of the physical gags in this film are hilarious. Even some of the “straight” sequences, which would probably be either disturbing or mundane if carried out by human actors, bring forth a chuckle just because they are performed by marionettes. Incidentally, the fact that Trey Parker and Matt Stone chose to go with puppets should not be surprising, seeing as their flagship show is nothing but animated paper cut-outs. These guys are not afraid to try new things—and they often succeed. It doesn’t hurt that the puppets, sets, direction, and special effects in Team America are all superb.

The film also boasts at least two songs of note. The better of the two describes the purpose of a montage sequence in a film while a montage is actually going on. Such self-conscious appropriation of Hollywood action film sequences is one of the strongest aspects of the film. Likewise, many of its parodies of various personalities, movies, and cultural trends are also spot on. This is particularly true in regard to its mockery of celebrities who tend to think fame confers wisdom. At one point, members of the fictional Film Actors Guild are told it is their duty to read things in the paper and then go on television and repeat what they read as if it is their own opinion. Probably not far from reality. That Parker and Stone chose to put the fate of the world in the hands of an actor is also a biting commentary on our own obsession with celebrity.

Despite all of these positive points, the main problem with this film is that these guys just don’t seem to know when to stop. The fact that they struggled to bring Team America, a film that stars puppets, down to an R-rating is a clear indication that something is amiss. Like Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films, Parker and Stone seem compelled to keep forcing a belly laugh until all that’s left is an uncomfortable silence. It’s like they’ve been waiting since grade nine to put every crude thought they’ve ever had into a film, and now they finally get a chance to do it. More than once during the film I was thinking, “No, he’s not really going to…” And then he did. Ugh. (I’ll spare you the details.)

Parker and Stone have built their careers by pushing boundaries. And while I’m not one to stifle creativity, at such times I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” It is probably breaking some sort of taboo to quote another film reviewer in my own review, but I can’t think of a better way to sum up my feelings in this regard other than quoting Roger Ebert: “I wasn’t offended by the movie’s content so much as by its nihilism. At a time when the world is in crisis and the country faces an important election, the response of Parker, Stone and company is to sneer at both sides—indeed, at anyone who takes the current world situation seriously. They may be right that some of us are puppets, but they’re wrong that all of us are fools, and dead wrong that it doesn’t matter.” Like Ebert, I wasn’t exactly shocked or outraged by the juvenile crudeness (I was fourteen-years-old once, too, after all). I was just disappointed that things rarely rose above a Beavis and Butthead snigger. Parker and Stone are big-time filmmakers now. And while sparks of genius keep illuminating the darkness, they insist on acting like two ignorant schoolboys giggling at the back of the classroom, refusing to grow up. The big question is, why?

That said, Team America: World Police boasts one of the most clearly articulated themes I have ever seen in a film. Parker and Stone break the world down into three types of people: 1) those who act, 2) those who talk, and 3) those who destroy. The first group is usually charging off, hell-bent on righting some kind of wrong. In this film, Team America is the epitome of this type. While their intentions are good, sometimes their enthusiasm pushes them overboard, and they have to be reined in by people in group 2).

Unfortunately, while people in group 2) do serve as a valuable calming influence, they also tend toward navel-gazing and criticism, often hindering the good work that people in group 1) want to do. So, sometimes they need people from group 1) to give them a reality check and/or a kick in the pants. In Team America, you could say that the United Nations—represented by the Film Actors Guild—falls into this category.

Then you have group 3). Like the terrorists who exemplify this type in the film, these people don’t care who gets hurt by their antics, just as long as they get the reaction they want and their demands are met.

I’m not sure how much time Parker and Stone spent thinking about where they fit into their clever typology, but I’d like to offer my own take on it here: While I wouldn’t exactly call them terrorists, in this film at least, Parker and Stone display their group 3) colors proudly. I have no idea what their demands are, but Team America: World Police is like exploding firecrackers in a crowded marketplace. It is clearly designed to offend and anger as many people as possible. Let’s just hope for Parker and Stone’s sakes that this doesn’t turn into a suicide mission—at least from a career point of view.

Proverbs 9:8 says “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” Heeding this advice, rather than rebuke Parker and Stone, as many other Christian commentators have done, I would like to challenge them instead:

If you were to look in the Foam Lake Composite High School yearbook for 1989, you’d see that my most embarrassing moment for grade twelve was when my principal, John Senkiw, accused me of practicing mediocrity. I’m not sure why he singled me out from amongst my group of goof-off friends, but obviously he saw some potential in me, and it bothered him to see me waste it. Fifteen years later, I still haven’t forgotten his words, and they spur me on whenever I’m tempted to do something sub-par.

Today, I would like to pass on that same assessment to Trey and Matt: I believe you are practicing mediocrity. You are pandering to the lowest common denominator to get a cheap laugh and make a fast buck rather than rising to the level of sophistication and insight I know you are both capable of attaining. In many ways, Team America was a brilliant film. But your propensity for crudity severely compromised the positive contribution this film could have made. At best, Team America offers a veneer of social commentary and some cheap laughs. But it could have done much, much more.

No doubt, there’s great potential here. Matt’s interview in Bowling for Columbine displays an acute ability to see through the tripe that distracts so many of us. He and Trey are among those rare individuals who are able discern the truth, and reflect it back to us in a way that is as instructive and unnerving as it is humorous. The ability to look beyond hype and status quo and give others a clearer perspective is a gift—one that is God-given—yet, I also believe that gift is being squandered. Worse, it’s being used to destroy rather than build. I believe in Parker and Stone. I really want them to become all they can be. The question is, do they?

Copyright @ 2004 Kevin Miller .


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